On his eighteenth birthday, Wolf Truly boards the tram that takes tourists up the mountain overlooking Palm Springs. He loves the mountain and has speOn his eighteenth birthday, Wolf Truly boards the tram that takes tourists up the mountain overlooking Palm Springs. He loves the mountain and has spent many happy hours on it, shooting nature photographs with his best friend Byrd and avoiding his unhappy home life. This is to be his last visit; he plans to end his life on this day. But the universe has other plans, and Wolf soon finds himself entwined with a trio of women who have a mountain quest of their own. After an unlucky chain of events, the four become lost on the craggy peak and The Mountain Story recounts the five traumatic days they spend trying to survive.
In the process of writing this novel, Lori Lansens spent some time on Mt. San Jacinto, an actual mountain on which the fictional one in her story is based. Her appreciation and awe for the area’s natural beauty comes through, and a respect for the place’s inherent dangers. For his part, Wolf is interested in the mountain from the moment he finds out he and his father will be leaving Michigan for the sunny desert of California. His childhood has been rocky and unpredictable; he was barely raised by a drug-addict father who has never recovered from Wolf’s mother’s untimely death. When they arrive at an aunt’s place in California, a tumultuous situation that is even worse than what they had before, Wolf finds a reprieve with Byrd, who shares his interest in hiking the mountain and learning about its habitat. Leaving the arid heat of the desert and rising to the cooler, forested heights must have felt like traveling to another world, and Wolf is sold from the beginning on the adventure.
The women who become stranded with Wolf represent three generations of the Devine family, and they have their own issues and family crises. Lansens expertly weaves their history, and the history of Wolf’s life up to that fateful day, into the unfolding drama on the mountain. The foursome are threatened by wildlife and pummeled by the elements; theirs is a physical and mental struggle, as each has arrived at this place with baggage. But these aren’t your typical heroes. Lansens paints these characters with all of the contradictory colors of humanity. At times they are unbelievably generous and valiant, at other times, selfish and short-sighted. This juxtaposition of human aims and striving alongside the behaviors of the non-human life on the mountain is one of the strengths of the novel. Everything can be boiled down to basic needs and wants, Lansens seems to be saying, when survival becomes your main desire. And for humans, one of these needs is family, although we can find it in unexpected places.
In an action-packed story, often attempts to integrate backstory slow and detract, but not in this case. The mountain portions were riveting, but the story of Wolf’s childhood and descent to suicidal thoughts had the same forward momentum; in fact, both aspects of the tale seemed to build to the same, eventual boiling point. This is certainly what I’d call a page-turner and yet, it introduces some thorny concepts too. What is the nature of family, and what do we owe each other? How strong does your survival instinct need to be? How much can we truly fight against the forces of nature and fate? The Mountain Story is a great summer read, delivering a compelling story and much to contemplate in its wake....more